A Composition of Compassion

By Sander Vloebergs

This blog is a theological-artistic exploration of Laudato si based on the themes of gender and pain. For his drawing, Sander Vloebergs was inspired by the classical pieta composition and the pain that runs through it.

Mary, the Mother who cared for Jesus, now cares with maternal affection and pain for this wounded world. Just as her pierced heart mourned the death of Jesus, so now she grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power (Laudato si 241).

The world is in pain, Mary is grieving and the Crucified mourns for the injustice that befell the Creation of the Father. In this contemporary story about the de-creation of the world, everyone seems to weep. The excruciating pain of the dismembering of the Earth blurs the lines between the protagonists of salvation history. In this blog I want to explore the divisions between the bodies in pain. Does suffering bring the Mother, the Father and the Son closer together? Can the Father weep like a Mother?  

Laudato si and Gender

Critics like Emily Reimer-Barry recently explored the papal document Laudato si and highlighted the gender roles that are used to name God and the earth. It seems that this document balances between a stereotypical gender division on the one hand and the new emphasis on gender diversity – encouraged by the feminist movement – on the other. Reimer-Barry detects an ambivalence. On the one hand, the pope explores new ways to encourage a loving relation with God and the Earth that challenges traditional oppressing relations. On the other hand the pope seems to sometimes reduce paradoxes – who are characteristics of a dynamic spirituality – to dualities that are mutually exclusive. The dynamic interplay between powerful and vulnerable, earth and heaven, man and woman seems to come to a halt occasionally. This creates an unhealthy constellation that supports oppression and power structures. The Father-image is a good example of this ambiguity.

The pope uses the name Father to stress the mutual relationship between Creator and creation. He explains his choice in Laudato si 75: “The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.” The Father-metaphor reminds us indeed of our spiritual and material dependence on the Creator. Nevertheless, Reimer-Barry points to the dangers of narrowing down the richness of the Father-metaphor. She writes: “This image [of the Father], drawn from human experiences of power and property ownership, is more akin to a patriarch who rules over his household than a loving companion who nurtures new life and cares for the vulnerable”. The wrong use of the image of Father could indeed make God a patriarch. The Father then becomes a ruler and is no longer a parent, He is no longer vulnerable. Vulnerability is traditionally described as a ‘feminine’ characteristic. Nevertheless we need the transgression of the classical gender divisions to come to an accurate perspective on the richness of the Father-metaphor. How can we enrich our metaphor of ‘Father’? What does it mean to be a father in the first place? (see Yves De Maeseneer's blog Child calls father to fatherhood). These reflections are not alien to the pope’s thinking.

Feminist theology encourages people to call God Father and Mother. This idea challenges the western dualistic way of thinking. God is both man and woman, He/She has female and male characteristics. Reimer-Barry regrets that the pope sometimes follows the dualistic divisions. She says: “By adopting masculine language for God and feminine language for Nature, Pope Francis carries forward a long-standing cultural metaphor that has been dangerous for women, given that it fails to recognize the equal dignity of women in shaping culture”. She continues: “In this worldview, to be masculine is to be strong, rational, active; to be feminine is to be weak, emotional, passive”. Nevertheless, the pope doesn’t make these divisions all the time. By emphasizing the vulnerable caring characteristics of the Father, the pope transgresses the gender roles. The Pope’s Father-image is grounded in a rich spirituality that recognizes vulnerability as a strength. The Father “also shows great tenderness, which is not a mark of the weak but of those who are genuinely strong, fully aware of reality and ready to love and serve in humility” (LS 242). He is not an oppressing patriarch but a caring parent. The Father is not a distant spectator of creation’s painful history. He chose to become vulnerable, to share blood and tears, to exchange Love and pain with his Mother Nature (the creation).

An Artistic-Theological Reflection

The Pieta – my drawing – spins around the point of vulnerability and compassion and creates an artistic Utopia where the Father can be the Mother and where the Creator can touch his creation. On this blank page Mary is allowed to be Jesus, crucified created matter that bleeds because of the sins of the world. Her openness for groundless divine Love brought her to the cross. Her lamentations finally died in a lifeless silence as her bones lay still in the hands of her Mother-Creator, wearing the face of the Son. In this Pieta, Jesus becomes the suffering Mother. Through the eyes of the Son, the Father weeps about the faith of his creation. He is powerless and vulnerable. In this last act of kenosis his tears mingle with the blood of the earth. When He sees the lifeless body of his creation He dies with Her and becomes nothing, an endless abyss of Love. This wounding/wounded Love moves beyond identity in the nameless ineffability where the protagonists of the passion story are transfigured into their essences: the lovers game between lover and beloved, Creator and Creation. Vulnerability allows humans to be humans, God to be God and both to be lovers. The vulnerable compassionate Father grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor with the heart of the Mother and the eyes of the Son.  

When Mother becomes Mary

As part of the series on Laudato Si, this blog is meant as a theological-artistic exploration of the themes of pregnancy and incarnation, themes that suit the time of the year, the advent period. For his drawing, Sander Vloebergs was inspired by the classical icons of Mary and child and the dynamic movement of Nature spiraling around the moment of incarnation. He was inspired by blogs previously written by Julia Meszaros and Patrick Ryan Cooper. This blog is a continuation of the line of thought that started with the previous blogpost on Laudato Si : This sister now cries out to us.


Body and incarnation

Mary, blessed above all women, Queen of the heavens. Sometimes we forget that the Holy Mother is a mother just like us: blessed with the gift of life, a woman between women. She is a created being, transformed by the Life that grows in her, never to be the same as before. She becomes the Image of what creation could be, Mother Nature pregnant of the divine, a material body of Love. More than a celestial appearance, she is a fleshly manifestation of endless love and devotion, an erotic human longing to be completed.

We seem to neglect the materiality of the gift of life when we watch the beautiful icons of Mother and Son. That is why I wanted to visualize the growing life inside Mary’s womb with this drawing. In my creative world the iconic Mary becomes first of all a mother; with a pregnant vulnerable body, spinning around the source of Life. We should not forget that pregnancy and deliverance are first of all bodily phenomena that have a deep existential significance. A child grows in a body. It is this radically transforming body that interrupts the human life, it demands a play of identity as the ‘I’ transforms into a ‘we’. In a way, the bodily creation of new life goes hand in hand with an encounter with death itself as the ego dies in order to resurrect as a mother. The beauty of the tree of life is intertwined with the fragility of human existence as revealed by the crucified body. While life is cherished in the womb, humans become vulnerable, capable of being wounded in a bodily and existential way. The gift of life is a gift of death, a chance to spiritual growth.

Julia Meszaros writes beautifully in her blog on the mysticism of natural childbirth about this spiritual journey. She writes: “ For natural childbirth can serve as a metaphor (and hence a training ground) for the spiritual life, as the great mystics of the Christian tradition have described it. The natural birth of a child ‘undoes’ us; it gives us a glimpse of the meaning of human suffering; and, by driving home to us our creatureliness, it places us before God”. In her blog she puts special emphasis on the pains of labor and the thin line between life and death as this pain makes us aware that our lives hang on a golden thread. The birth pains reveal the fragile nature of human existence and the presence of life in the most vulnerable bodies. Yet those bodies show the most potential to live an authentic human life: open to be wounded and touched by the divine.

Mother of mothers

So we come to the Mother of mothers, Mary who responded with unrestricted love to the presence of God. She accepted the transformative movement of Nature (the natural pregnancy) to harmonize with the wounding Love of God in a way that changed the course of history. Yet we can’t forget that she is a creature of matter, a human body, a Mother Nature in her brightest form. About the necessity of her humanity, Patrick Ryan Cooper writes: “Without the Theotokos, the Incarnate Word would have been merely "similar to us but would not have been perfectly consubstantial" and thus the "God-man would not be my brother". Mary gives Jesus his body and offers him the gift of death and suffering that is existentially intertwined with Life itself.

She is the example par excellence of how a spiritual erotic longing for the Love of God can transform the body and how the pregnant body can change the existence of men. Mary is both active in her seductive devotion and passive in the receiving of the divine. The active dynamics that seduce the God of Love are driven by the praying openness of all humans who carry in them the gift of life. Mary is part of this cosmic movement, she is its crown jewel. In her, the prayer of the earth gets answered, and she, first of all mankind, becomes a temple where creation and Creator can touch.  Mother Mary reveals what Mother Nature can become, what every human could become. She is the mother who became Mary, Queen of Heavens.


This sister now cries out to us: a theological-artistic perspective on Laudato Si'

This blog is meant as a theological-artistic exploration of the encyclical's core theme. For his drawings, Sander Vloebergs was inspired by archetypical images of the earth/the Goddess. The interpretation of the art works are the fruit of a dialogue between Sander and Lieve Orye, who approached the pictures with a focus on theological epistemology.

by Sander Vloebergs in cooperation with Lieve Orye

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters (Laudato si §2)


A Franciscan way of knowing, kinship and love

Click to see images in a lightbox

The first words we read in Laudato Si’ are words that help us to see what is around us – the ground we walk on, the air we breath - as kin – as brother, as sister, as mother. “[O]ur common home is like a sister with whom we share our lives and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us”(§1). But not only are they as kin to us. It is through all His creatures, brother sun and sister moon, through our sister Mother earth that He is praised. In Laudato Si' we are invited to go beyond the language of science, of mathematics or biology, beyond intellectual appreciation and economic calculus, to join Francis in song, learning again to recognize our unity with all creatures around us as sisters and brothers with whom we could and should kindle our bonds of affection. Through this recognition and through this bond we will hear again the call to care for all that exists. We should learn to see again with openness to awe and wonder, learn to speak again the language of fraternity and beauty, the language of kinship and connection (§11).

Sometimes the distinction is made between a Dominican way of knowing that thrives on abstract properties and designations, a knowing that that draws on first- and third-person avowals, and a Franciscan mode of knowledge that describes the world in terms of categories that require an acquaintance with certain stories and persons in order to understand. The latter is a kind of knowing that is not reducible to a knowledge that. It involves a kind of second-person knowing. It requires us not to remain at a distance but to get personally involved with that or those one seeks to know or to recognize the personal involvement that is unavoidably there. Though Pope Francis certainly does not dismiss the Dominican, more scientific, detached kind of knowledge about the world, he nevertheless stresses with his opening words the need to rekindle a Franciscan way of knowing made possible through love. Such knowledge seems particularly needed when suffering is involved, and when a knowledge is needed that does not become a form of domination. That Pope Francis considers the earth herself as one among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor, is therefore telling: Both the suffering of the earth and the suffering of the poor is a suffering that needs to be understood beyond abstract theory and distant analysis, through the listening to and telling of stories that allows us to learn how to be in relation to the main characters of the story. Through these stories second person experiences can be told in a way that the distinctively second-person character of the experiences is kept alive. Through these stories love can be nourished rooted in a reason that is constituted by the lover's relationship with the beloved. Christians tell and listen to the story of how God so loved the world that he sent his only son. But the story also tells us that we crucified him.

Stories and images to learn to see earth as suffering kin

We also need to tell the story of how we crucified our own Mother Earth. These sisters and brothers have been and continue to be wronged deeply. The images we now often get to see in documentaries or news programs are images of damage, of lack, of chaos. It is the image of a Mother Nature who bleeds. In those images, the risen Christ seems unbearably absent leaving us only the ugliness of the wounds, the filthy scars of a broken body. Without his deified flesh there is nothing glorious about this sight. We are slaughtering our own flesh without any chance of resurrection, sacrificing her for our own idols, killing her for our own utopia. The second paragraph of Laudato Si’ gets straight to the nub of the matter. Our relation has become one of carelessness, of negligence, of objectification and exploitation. We no longer hear the world, no longer read the pages of the book of Nature as a song of praise, and so do not hear the cry as the cry of a loved one, even when we realize, in economic terms, in scientific terms, or even in our own bodies that in being careless and exploitative towards our world we are careless and exploitative towards ourselves.  

We must learn to commune again with all creation (§11), learn to burst out in song again. Though we need scientific analyses of what is going wrong, of what causes the rise in temperature and what will be its consequences, we must also take up again the telling of stories through word and image, through material creation and divine inspiration, in search of the prophetic voice of the Earth, calling out to us, reminding us of the prophesy of a Kingdom to come, of a new creation in which the groaning will cease. The three images of Mother Earth in this blog are an attempt to go beyond a dissecting language, beyond a language of problems and solutions, beyond a language that allows us to deny our involvement. These are images that search to show how the limits which are written in our bodies are repulsive to the exiles of Eden, to modern man. The crisis of limits that, as Jared Schumacher noted in his post, spilled into how we talk about and see and experience the world, has brought us from the Endlessness of Elohim to the Hollowness of Hades, believing it to be the ultimate freedom. The gift of mortality is transformed into the burden of suffering. As revenge, we chastise our Godesses, icons of Nature which wear the face of the inevitable Son.

 Trapped between antichrist and Imago Dei these images try to create an interplay between the dream of mankind and the dream of God. They are hybrid bodies raising up from the earth, touched by the divine, befouled by sin, bleeding for us. The ultimate choice is ours; to drink the life giving water or the poison of the serpent; to suffer from compassion or from hate; to enjoy the labor pains and the re-creation of the world or to torture the Earth for her blasphemy against the modern ideals.

In these images Mother Earth calls out to us, calls us, “not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it” (§19).

Evolution and Theological Anthropology in Laudato Si'

By Matthew Shadle (Theology and Religious Studies, Marymount University), guest contributor


Much of the commentary about Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’, both before and after its release, has focused on the controversial issue of climate change. My instinct, however, is that in the long run its incorporation of Darwinian evolution into its teaching on Catholic anthropology will end up being equally, if not more, significant. Francis’s predecessors Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI recognized the scientific truth of evolution, but never brought this science into dialogue with their teaching on the human person. Francis, by contrast, has begun this dialogue, even if tentatively and incompletely.

On October 22, 1996, Pope John Paul II presented an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in which he recognized the scientific validity of the theory of evolution. In July of 2007, in some informal remarks Pope Benedict XVI argued that seeing evolution and belief in God as exclusive alternatives is an “absurdity,” rejecting both creationism and materialistic versions of evolutionary theory. Both popes were concerned with questions of randomness, order, and design—for example Benedict’s rejection of the idea that humankind is “merely a random product of evolution in some place on the margins of the universe” in his 2011 Easter homily—yet both affirmed that evolution could be understood as part of a theistic design for the cosmos.

To my knowledge, however, neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI ever addressed evolution in a positive way in their more formal teaching documents, nor did they bring evolutionary theory into dialogue with Catholic theological anthropology. Both gave central importance to Genesis 1-3 as a source for anthropology, but both read it in ways unmarked by any awareness of evolution. This is even true when they are speaking about humankind’s relationship to the natural environment. For example, in his most extensive statement on the environment, his 1990 World Day of Peace Message, Pope John Paul II appeals to Genesis 2 to justify humankind’s stewardship of nature, but there is no sense that humanity evolved from the natural world over which it has stewardship. The same is also true of Benedict’s 2010 World Day of Peace Message, where he also contrasts the Genesis account of creation with the view that the world is the product of “necessity,” “blind fate or chance,” without mentioning his own earlier more nuanced views on evolution.

Like his predecessors Francis has affirmed evolution, but unlike them, he has now woven evolutionary biology into his encyclical Laudato Si’. Early in the encyclical, he refers to “biological evolution” as one of the “complex systems” characteristic of the planet (#18). But what about human beings and their role in evolution? Probably the most important passage is paragraph #81:

Human beings, even if we postulate a process of evolution, also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems. Each of us has his or her own personal identity and is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God himself. Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology. The sheer novelty involved in the emergence of a personal being within a material universe presupposes a direct action of God and a particular call to life and to relationship on the part of a ‘Thou’ who addresses himself to another ‘thou’. The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object.

Although the thrust seems to be the other way, this passage makes clear that humanity also emerged through evolution. We are hampered by a misleading English translation of the first line, which in the original Italian reads “L’essere umano, benché supponga anche processi evolutivi, comporta una novità non pienamente spiegabile dall’evoluzione di altri sistemi aperti,” which is better translated as “The human being, even if one supposes evolutionary processes, entails a novelty not fully explicable by the evolution of other open systems,” or “Even if the human being (pre)supposes evolutionary processes, it entails….” This latter version mirrors the French translation: “Bien que l’être humain suppose aussi des processus évolutifs, il implique une nouveauté qui n’est pas complètement explicable par l’évolution d’autres systèmes ouverts.” The English translation evokes a tentativeness that is not present in the other versions.

Later in the encyclical, Francis writes: “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it” (#139). Although Francis could be clearer in bringing this out, the implication of this statement is again that not only did humankind emerge from the process of biological evolution, but like other organisms continue to exist in an adaptive (or maladaptive) relationship with the physical environment.

Although Francis does not make the connections for us, linking different passages from the encyclical can create results that are quite startling. For example, in paragraph #99 he points out that when the Word “became flesh,” He “entered into the created cosmos,” but as we have seen, this is the cosmos of evolution. When the Word became flesh, this flesh carried the evolutionary history of countless organisms! 

What makes Francis’s comments on evolution more remarkable is that they take place in a document a major theme of which is to critique the reductive, soulless, materialist tendencies of modern science which had led John Paul II and Benedict XVI to speak cautiously about the theory of evolution. Francis writes that a mentality drawn exclusively from the scientific method leaves humanity “in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation,” in a “confrontational” relationship with the natural world (#106) Passages such as this have even led R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, to propose that Francis is anti-science. But Francis is rejecting the “one-dimensional paradigm” of reductive science as our only way of relating to the natural world. Now I think his main thrust is that we also need a spiritual way of relating to nature (e.g., #76), but, consistent with Francis’s goal of “seeing the mysterious network of relations between things” (#20), even the science he draws on in the encyclical pushes against reductionism.

Throughout the encyclical, Francis draws on the science of ecology, which in its very method takes a more holistic approach than that dominant in modern science. Based on some of the technical terms used in the encyclical—“open systems,” “complex systems,” “emergence”—and more common but related terms—“connectivity,” “complexity”—I think it is possible that Francis is drawing specifically on systems ecology, the branch of ecology that deals with ecosystems as systems. This means instead of breaking natural phenomena down into their parts, one looks at the system as a whole, how its parts work together in ways that might transcend the sum of the parts. Ecology presupposes evolution, but also helps explain the holistic context in which environmental shifts, adaptation, and natural selection occur. It also provides a wider context, making clear that biological evolution presupposes more basic natural processes: every ecosystem depends on the sun for energy, the consumption of one organism by another occurs through chemical processes, etc.

We see this idea in Laudato Si’ in Francis’s use of the concept of the “open system.” Unfortunately again we are faced with a misleading translation—“In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation” (#79). In the original Italian, the first two clauses read “In questo universo, composto da sistemi aperti che entrano in comunicazione gli uni con gli altri”—that is, “In this universe, composed of open systems that enter into communication, one with another”—making clear that here we have a definition of an “open system,” not two types of systems. Closely linked with the idea of the “open system” is that of “emergence.” For example, one can speak of the emergence of a “higher” level of natural reality from a “lower” level, the lower remaining operative but the higher irreducible to the lower; an example would be the chemical processes necessary for the biological functioning of an organism. Or it can refer to the phenomenon of a whole greater than the sum of its parts, such as an organ composed of cells, or a flock of birds, its behavior irreducible to the characteristics of the birds considered individually. This term appears only a few times in the encyclical, such as the “emergence” of humankind from the material universe cited earlier, but the concept itself seems central to the document.

At the beginning I noted that Francis’s dialogue with evolutionary biology is tentative and incomplete, so let’s return to that central paragraph, #81. Here Francis shows a concern similar to that raised by Pope John Paul II in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the uniqueness and spiritual dignity of the human person. As John Paul II stated:

 . . . [I]f the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God. Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person.

Francis, like John Paul, seems to want to have it both ways: the human person emerges from the material universe, but is also dependent on a “direct action” of God. It seems to me that John Paul, and perhaps Francis following him, too easily collapses the two theories mentioned above. Surely we want to reject the idea that the mind or soul is an epiphenomenon of the body, reducible to biological processes, but it is not clear to me that considering consciousness as an emergent property of the material body, dependent on but irreducible to biological processes, diminishes human dignity in the same way. Thinking that God must “immediately” or “directly” intervene into the world to create each human soul seems to presuppose the empty, materialistic view of nature both popes want to reject. As Francis notes throughout his encyclical, the natural world is already alive with the presence of God—“The Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities and therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge” (#80).

Likewise, as a biologist friend reminded me, all of the things Francis lists as unique to humankind—“Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art”—can be found to some degree in other animals. Even if humans are quantitatively, or even qualitatively, different from other animals, it is still important to keep in mind that at least some animals have a reflective or even spiritual capacity, a fact that Francis recognizes elsewhere in the encyclical (e.g., #72).

But perhaps Francis offers a different way of thinking about this problem after all. For one, in paragraph #81, Francis claims that human uniqueness “cannot be fully explained” by evolution, suggesting that in part it can. Human reflective and spiritual capacities have some evolutionary basis. Second, even though he refers to the “direct action of God,” Francis does not actually raise the issue of “ensoulment.” Perhaps the “direct action” referred to here is not the creation of the soul, but grace, the invitation to participate in Trinitarian love. In one of the most theologically pregnant lines of the encyclical, immediately following the above cited definition of “open systems,” he writes that we should think of “the whole as open to God’s transcendence, within which it develops”; the created universe is not only immanently open, through the emergence of new and more complex “open systems,” but also transcendentally open to the divine, an openness only fully realized in the human person. This idea is confirmed a bit later:

 . . . [A]ll creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things. Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator (#83).

Unlike other forms of emergence, the invitation to Trinitarian love through Christ is experienced as coming from beyond our own innate capacities. And since this invitation is there from the beginning (the human person having no “pure nature”), then it is indeed true that the human capacity for reflection, inventiveness, and beauty is always shaped by grace, even if it is also partly a product of evolution.

Even if tentative and incomplete, in Laudato Si’ Francis provides us a more positive way of integrating evolutionary biology and Catholic anthropology than his predecessors. Some important topics are not even addressed: the question of suffering and death, the doctrine of original sin, ethical questions about “natural law,” selfishness, cooperation, and altruism. As the above reflections show, however, Francis has planted theological seeds that need tending in the years to come.


This blogpost was first posted on the Catholic Moral Theology Blog

The Crisis of Limits: The Theo-Political Environment

Jared Schumacher

While the main focus of Laudato Si is clearly the environmental crisis of late modernity, what is initially striking about the text is its commitment to broadening the scope of the discussion to include much more than environmental concerns.  Or, better, it defines the environmental crisis as sourced in a larger crisis of the human condition, only one node of which is man-made climate change.  

Drawing on the work of his predecessor Benedict XVI, Pope Francis links environmental degradation to a similar degradation in " the social environment ", whose joint source is not a natural phenomenon, but a mistaken cultural ideology, i.e. "the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless"(6). Francis argues that when (human) nature  is not seen as possessing inherent limits, the integrity of all of creation is in danger. It is clear Francis has the moral relativism encouraged by modernity in his crosshairs as a central cause of our crisis (cf. 122-3).   

Francis' differential diagnosis of the (post)modern condition comes to the fore most strongly in an opening paragraph, a passage ostensibly commenting on St. Francis' fraternal relationship with nature, but with overtones about how imitating his modus vivendi can cure what ails us.  

Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled (11).

Francis sees most keenly that ours is a 'crisis of limits', which has spilled into how we talk about ––and thus how we see and experience–– the world. He is saying that the regnant definitions of modernity are infected with an ideological liberalism that must be rooted out, so that we can see, speak about, and interact with all of God's creation in an authentic manner, in a manner of "awe and wonder".  Only when this happens can our vision has been healed so that we are truly free to "feel intimately united with all that exists".

Any attempt at technological fixes to the environmental fiasco thus will leave untouched this central wound of our affliction, our mal de tête.  And because ours is a crisis of limits, the document's steely-eyed resolve is that only by setting limits for ourselves in line with the created order, and controlling our speech in line with our convictions, can we begin the long march to a better world.  

Important for grasping 'the form' of the documents vision is the fact that the ecological crisis is a human crisis.  And because man is a socio-political animal, the crisis is as much political as it is a matter of individual consumer choices or habits.  It is literally 'our' problem, which manifests itself in every human structure and social institution. 

What is needed, the Pope argues, is an "ecological conversion" in the fullest sense of the terms (216-221):  where 'ecology' means both the external and the internal human environment, and 'conversion' means not only a change of head and heart, but a change of habit and homeland.  By broadening the scope of his environmental analysis to include moral, social, and philosophical factors, Francis offers a holistic vision for humans to combat all the sources of degradation ailing the human world.  Because "everything is connected" (cf. 16, 42, 91, 117, 162), but connected under a certain created order (77, 221), the document stands as not only as social critique, but also as a social and political call to action.   And the primary goal of such action is "conversion", to re-establish a natural, created order, both within ourselves and in all things, God's "order of love"(77).  

Only a fuller analysis of the document can detail the concrete steps we must take politically to ensure such a conversion, the recreation of such an order.  The Pope mentions many, the most striking being the recovery of the centrality of the family as the nucleus of any authentic political community.  But Francis has in mind not only the immediate, natural family––which is the type of all other 'families'–– but learning to see every human as a member of one great family, of which God is the Father.  The political answer to the ecological crisis is thus, shockingly, learning the healthy habits of home-life. The politics of the encyclical is therefore an expansive economics (from oikos, Greek= "house/home") of familial love. Because "everything is connected", only when we learn to live well at home can we hope to care for the world as "our common home." 

By reminding us that the world is our home and its people are our Family, Laudato Si gives us fresh eyes to read 1 Pet 4:17.  "For it is time for judgment to begin with the house of God."

Of further interest: see the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin's address on the Political dimensions of Laudato si

Analogical Solidarity and a Spirituality of Ascetic Resistance in 'Laudato si'

by dr. Patrick Ryan Cooper

"Everything is interconnected". Indeed, painfully so.

Giotto di Bondone.  The marriage of St. Francis and Lady Poverty , Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy.   
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Giotto di Bondone. The marriage of St. Francis and Lady Poverty, Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy.

We are daily reminded of our vulnerability at this very hour, from the global financial economy and the continuing failure of political discourse, to the innumerable drastic signs that bespeak of our ecological fragility. Within this complex milieu of narrowing ideological interests, gross inequalities and fragmentation, Pope Francis has boldly re-engaged the authority and the prestige of the Church's Magisterial teaching with his encyclical, Laudato si, as heeding the cry of the poor and the discarded. With exceptional breadth and immense attention to detail, Francis time and again draws intrinsic parallels between current environmental degradation and widespread indifference to the sufferings of the poorest and most vulnerable within our societies.  There is no political consensus that can easily align with Francis' stern warnings, as he easily implicates both conservatives and liberals alike, all the while imploring the faithful that they "must constantly feel challenged to live in a way consonant with their faith and not to contradict it by their actions." (§200) Rather, Francis aims to reframe current discourse by significantly broadening the vision and moral consequences beneath what is otherwise the familiar debate and the struggling political consensus to effectively legislate over curbing the immanent dangers posed by climate change and environmental degradation.


In addition to its shrewd political calculus in deliberately destabilizing comfortable ideological capture, Pope Francis' highly significant encyclical and its bold, "integral ecology" has in fact, I would argue, evinced the profound social relevance and critical potential latent in continuously ressourcing the Tradition's "ethical and spiritual treasures" in order for the Church to uniquely and effectively respond to the urgent challenges facing us today. In particular, Francis draws generously from the wells of the fundamental Catholic principle of analogy—as concretized and lived out by the ascetic mysticism of his namesake, the poverello of Assisi—as an intrinsic unveiling of the "precious book" of creation wherein the Creator continuously discloses his Trinitarian life and is thus, the underlining principle of such "interconnectedness" from which Francis' moral call for solidarity stems. In doing so, continual allusion is made that in order to heed the cry and appeal for an increased moral sense of solidarity, we first need to recover, what in reality amounts to a profoundly dense, lived ontological solidarity as creatures and intrinsically set in relation to God as our Creator.

This is the basis of our conviction that, as part of the universe, called into being by one Father, all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion….'God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement. (§89)

It is this bold, analogical vision that arguably lays at the heart of this encyclical, both in terms of content and its unfolding, repetitive structure, as itself the principal of interconnectedness. We must learn once more that the world is not so much a "problem to be solved" as it is a "joyful mystery to be contemplated" from which we may heed divine Wisdom and its rhythm inscribed and manifested within creation itself.

Francis contextualizes his bold, social reenvisioning of analogy as indeed amounting to the Catholic difference within an explicitly theological ecology purview; that is, a profound reimagining of "countless forms of relationship and participation" within its view of the "whole as open" to the asymmetric beyond of "God's transcendence", while mutually inseparable to a creaturely immanence "within which it develops" (§75) As profoundly relational, such analogy therein stands unambiguously opposed to the "Promethean mastery" (§116) of modern anthropocentrism, severely critiquing the "tyrannical and irresponsible domination of human beings over other creatures", while sternly warning us that such environmental degradation is nothing short of "ourselves usurping the place of God" by "claiming the unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot", idolatrously doubling the "Father who creates and who alone owns the world."(§75) Such a view Francis identifies as in part resulting from an enclosed, autonomous view of creation devolving into "nature" (§76), a natura pura that posited its own distinct, immanent ends. Instead, "the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us….[but] with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things."(§83)


What is truly significant regarding this analogical vision of creation is that, as the first Roman pontiff from the global South, Francis' starting point in no way capitulates to some form of scientific rationalism or philosophical neutrality. This is a significant development considering that Laudato si is unambiguously a "social" encyclical, dialogically addressed to Catholics, Christians and all men of goodwill, and yet the accent is almost entirely on the gratuity of creation, and not upon the autonomy of nature. In this case, there is a strong continuity with Benedict XVI's major social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (2009) from which charity's gratuitousness is regarded as intimately linked to the question of reciprocity and justice, yet at the same time ordering it in truth and thus far surpassing justice as the primary principle of the Church's Social Doctrine. For Francis, creation is repeatedly seen in strong contrast to the reductive, univocal order of "nature…seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all"(§76) from which our collective responsibility towards our "common home" originates. While the gratuitous mystery at the very heart of being as creatio ex nihilo is thus expressive of a gratuitous "order of love"; that it is, and furthermore, that it is "very good" thus evokes a continual source of wonder and awe from which "one comes to know by analogy their maker." (Wis. 13,5)

Such gratuitousness is neither utopic nor can it be "written off as naïve romanticism". Rather, the integrity and revelatory disclosure of the goodness of creation is both upheld, while at this very hour, the peripheries "cries out to us".(§2) Such radical pleas for redemption both highlights our eschewed responsibility and our overall brokenness amid the appalling degradation of both creation and the poor alike. The radical giftedness of creation thus perdures, even amid the stark and tyrannical hegemony of a liberal capitalist order that discards and places in peril the very gratuity of creation as a common good, operating instead upon the erotic narrative of infinite or unlimited growth "based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth's goods…[that] leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit." (§106) Hence, to neutrally approach the world as a "problem to be solved" thereby capitulates to the "technocratic" paradigm of univocal sameness and its mastery as a "lordship over all".(§108)

Instead, Francis frames the socio-economic relevance of this ontological solidarity, while deliberately appealing to St. John Paul II, explicitly in terms of the universal destination of goods that undercuts and thus relativizes any and all views of "private property as absolute or inviolable." (§93) In doing so, Francis appeals for a conversion of both vision and lifestyle. Hence, the call for a moral solidarity—to become "painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it" (§19)—in turn rests upon the gratuitous mystery of creation and its ontological solidarity that gives rise to the "language of fraternity"; of St. Francis' many brothers and sisters; an ontological solidarity, without which no matter the "greenness" of our moral vision, we will indeed become "that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs."(§11) It is therefore of considerable moral gravity that Francis has forcefully reintroduced the link between spirituality and asceticism, rooted in the very sacramentality of the world as created and expressed in its analogical vision of interconnectedness. This is concretely expressed in moral terms as an overall defense of the integrity of created life: from abortion (§120) and euthanasia, to the Neo-Malthusianism of population control (§50) to the ecological care for all living life, the latter of which is neither "optional or secondary".(§217) For it is only in forcefully drawing out such continuities between analogical vision and its integrated vision of the whole and a renewed, ascetic spirituality "which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm….to seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system."(§111)


(For a good overview of the concrete examples of asceticism in Laudato si, see Jana Bennet's reflections at "Catholic Moral Theology")

A strong and moving word that encourages us to act together

By Jacques Haers SJ

One may sigh: ‘Finally…., finally the Pope speaks clear language about the environment. Why did he wait so long?’ Others will complain that the pope should stick to theology and avoid making economic or political claims. Whatever one may think of it, “Laudato Si” is a remarkable and strong official document, in line with the ecologically conscious attitude of the previous popes. It is a text that will stimulate and support the worldwide engagement of the international network that is the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, the encyclical is not only addressed to Catholics, but to all human beings, worldwide.

This encyclical (1) offers a realistic perspective on reality, and (2) is carried and enlightened by a dynamics of hope and (3) a sense of engagement.

A realistic perspective on reality

In many ways, the encyclical reflects a sharp sense of critical realism, in which the ecological and human crises are tightly intertwined. The care for our common home that is the planet earth confronts us with a complex and threatening crisis in which ecological degradation and human injustices are interconnected: pollution of the environment and our disposable culture; climate changes and important social, economic and  political consequences for our living together; exploitation of nature and more, in particular scarcity of water; loss of biodiversity; decrease of human quality of life and social coherence; worldwide inequalities; poverty, war and violence. This crisis needs to be taken seriously. “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain,” writes the Pope (LS 161). The causes of this crisis can be found to a large extent in human behavior (individual, conceptual and structural), thoughts and attitudes. In this context, Pope Francis refers to a venturesome trust in a technocratic, global society that believes in a myth of unlimited growth and is based on market mechanisms in favor of profit and self-interest. This crisis will not be solved without taking into account human reality and more in particular an unrestrained anthropocentrism and for which exploitation of nature is a normality, that leads to a factual relativism in which fellow human beings are treated as objects, and that starts from a master discourse of that becomes visible in new genetic technology and the sciences.

Ecoscepticism and the refusal to name the human responsibilities of this crisis are unknown to this encyclical. (Demonstrated for example by the fact that the president of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research participated in the press conference of the Vatican.) Notwithstanding hopeful initiatives and ‘good practices’ on an individual and local scale, and despite efforts on the level of international networks and civil initiatives, the political and institutional response to the crisis remains underdeveloped, because a lot of interests are at stake that lead to short term political maneuvers.

A dynamics of hope

The encyclical is carried by a dynamics of hope that is directed at all human beings and that finds its inspiration in the Christian tradition of creation. The importance of an integral ecology as a fundamental vision and framework of thought is strongly put forward. This stresses the multi-dimensional character of ecological thought: it impacts the environment (solidarity of nature as a whole and ecosystems), economics, social reality, cultural diversity that takes into account nature and environment (care for indigenous cultures), the daily ecology that expresses itself for example in  transport and housing or in the moral beliefs and moral behavior. Two big principles are central here: the common good and care for future generations.

The Christian creational perspective, as put forward in the encyclical and based on creation stories in Genesis and St. Francis of Assisi’s spirituality, emphasizes a moderate anthropocentrism in which human beings, as a special creation of God (image of God) remain interwoven with and connected to the whole of nature, and are seen as protectors (defenders, preservers, lawyers)  of this nature. There is strong opposition against exaggerated anthropocentrism that allows human beings to exploit nature and fellow human beings. Nature is considered our common home. This creational perspective also takes an option for the poor in which the exploited nature is also counted as ‘poor’ and entails solidarity among the whole of creation as communion. It also takes a Christological incarnational perspective in which great admiration for the creation as revelation of God is shown. The perspective of the future invites to creative thinking.

The encyclical encourages engagement

Throughout the encyclical, readers are encouraged to act on a personal level, on the level of the local and through societal structures on the national and international political level. Pope Francis invites us to embark on a dialogue on the environment within the international community, a dialogue at the service of human flourishing, and a dialogue between religions and science. The importance of dialogue is also emphasized between different ecclesial regions, between different Christian denominations and between religions – this is demonstrated by the large diversity in the Pope’s references. The emphasis on ‘dialogue’ points to the desire to start a broad societal process of discernment, in which Christians can offer their contribution and to which each creature as reflection of God contributes.

The encyclical highlights ecological education and ecological spirituality. In this respect, the Earth Charter (www.earthcharterinaction.org) offers interesting paths for this and suggests ways to alter our lifestyles, so that a new covenant between human being and environment can emerge, leading to ecological citizenship and to conversion that finds its inspiration in Jesus and in the consciousness that each creature is a reflection of God. Several spiritual attitudes are stressed by the Pope: joy, peace, sobriety, humility, love for citizens and politics that is realized in political structures and social organizations, sacramental sensibility (in particular in the Eucharist) and the celebrating of the quiet peace that allows us to deepen our relation with God. This spiritual attitude comes to the fore in the encyclical in the form of two prayers at the end of the text. Moreover, throughout the whole of the encyclical, the Pope gives examples of ‘good practices’ on individual and social levels, such as the practice of praying before and after a meal (LS 227;211;230).

This encyclical is not a doctrinal document and definitely doesn’t want to offer a definitive new theology. Here, there seems to lie a big task for theologians. Whatever one might say about the long length of the encyclical, or about the Pope taking irrelevant tangents in this text, or the lack of theological elaboration in this encyclical, the reader of this encyclical grows while reading this text, and continues growing when reading it a second or third time.

This blog was first published as part of the CLT Newsletter